Dr. Harold H.P Dressler was one of my Bible College professors when I was at NBTC in Vancouver. Dr. Dressler apparently retired from the North American Baptist Mission in April. He served Baptist churches in Russia in the area of theological education.
Dr. Dressler was tough on us, particularly in our third year preaching class (some students even called him Dr. Death. Shocking). He took us straight to the Bible, assigned us a passage and then left it up to us to go home and study to find the one word that captured that passage. Only one word. The right word. That was hard. Then, we had to do an exegetical (from the text) outline of that passage that was textually defensible in every point and sub point. We were marked on that outline. Our marks fell in large chunks if we imposed ideas on that outline (and thus the text) that were not in the text. Next, we had to take that sermon and do a homiletical outline. That is, we had to make it user friendly for the congregation – well balanced and pleasantly worded. We were marked on that too – not only on content (it, too, had to be biblically defensible), but on the artistic value, if you will.
I don’t think any of us received great marks in that class (at least I know I didn’t), but the lessons we learned about God’s Word, preaching and ourselves were extremely valuable. Youthful pretensions died a slow death in Dr. Dressler's classes.
One day, after class, one of the students asked Dr. Dressler a question that we had all been discussing, “Where can we go to hear preaching like this?” When asked, Dr. Dressler just laughed (much to our surprise). He said, “No one actually preaches like this. It’s too much work.” Whoa. Did he ease up on us in class after that? Ha.
Soon after that class, I watched a dumb 80s chick flick called White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. I don’t remember much about the movie, but there was a scene where Hines and Baryshnikov danced side by side. The dance was in Hines’ genre, but seeing the superior level of skill and grace that Baryshnikov displayed was astounding when put beside Hines – no slouch himself. I’m no dance critic – I’m the farthest thing from it - but even I could see that there was no contest. Baryshnikov was effortless and in total control of his body. As I watched that, I thought about what Dr. Dressler was doing in preaching class. He frustrated us greatly – drove us crazy – because we just couldn’t get what he was requiring. But he did us a big favor by demonstrating to us the seriousness of the preaching task. This was an introduction to classical training for preaching.
In music, writing, theatre, preaching or any other discipline, hard work put into classical training gives the practitioner wide latitude within his or her area of expertise. For instance, a classically trained pianist will be able to excel in the performance of popular music just as Baryshnikov was able to move most impressively in jazz dance (or whatever it was that Gregory Hines was renowned for doing). Reaching for the highest standards of faithfulness in terms of what God’s Word actually says will benefit the preacher even in the (occasional) topical sermon.
Dr. Dressler gave us a very lofty goal. He knew that if we kept that target in our sights, we would serve our churches more effectively, even when we fell short of those targets.
Do I preach up to those standards now? Not a chance, though some weeks are closer than others. Do I think in terms of these classical categories of theme, exegetical and homiletical outline? Yes I do. More than that, I know that no matter how much time I have to preach week by week, I’ll never reach the high goal that Dr. Dressler set for us in that class – a goal that was high because it demonstrated a great reverence for the Word of God. Even though I don’t give the exegesis (particularly) the time it deserves, I am thankful for his emphasis that God’s Word is the changeless, sufficient standard - a bottomless well of wisdom and truth.
Thank you, Dr. Dressler, for your high standards. You instilled in at least some of us a great appreciation for the Word of God and preaching. Even though, in my case, it took a few years for the significance to sink in.